Thursday, August 06, 2009

How astroturfing and town-hall hooliganism will destroy American democracy


What Rachel Maddow describes is called “astroturfing,” the subject of this hastily prepared post. I say “hasty” because this is an important topic deserving of immediate and sustained discussion in the blogosphere.

The goal of astroturfing is to create the illusion of public opposition to pending legislation or reform. Astroturfing is organized by professional public relations firms financed by corporations, their lobbyists, and trade associations to oppose any legislation that threatens corporate interests. Astroturfing creates the illusion of a popular and spontaneous uprising but, in fact, is a carefully orchestrated and covert operation that utilizes deception, disinformation, scare tactics, fear-mongering, and outright forgery to achieve its goals.

Examples of astroturfing are the recent Tea Bag protests; the “Dead Seniors” campaign designed to sabotage healthcare reform; and the “Birther” movement that seeks to undermine the legitimacy of an elected president.

Astroturfing is sometimes called “stealth” marketing, “viral” marketing, or “ambush” marketing. Cynical and unethical in the extreme, it is specifically banned in the Code of Ethics published by the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators. However, ethics never seemed to bother former House Majority Leader Dick Armey or the billionaire lobbyists who pay him to sabotage pending legislation and reform.

Recently, astroturfing has taken a more sinister form reminiscent of the violent street tactics that gave birth to the Third Reich. A rightwing organization called Right Principles has published a “
political action” memo that shows supporters how to disrupt town hall meetings, harass and heckle members of congress, and shout down and drown the opposition:

"pack the hall... spread out" to make their numbers seem more significant, and to "rock-the-boat early in the Rep's yell out and challenge the Rep's statements early ... to rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda ... stand up and shout ... "

According to Rachel Maddow, this memo is a prescription for hooliganism and intimidation.

Dick Armey’s client list includes major pharmaceutical firms such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, a trade group representing major insurance companies, a front company representing fossil fuel interests, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Prime Minister of the UAE), and Freedom Works (the tea bag protest organizers), among others. Astroturfing represents a threat to democracy because it serves the interests of corporations but NOT the will of citizens and voters, thus undermining the meaning and purpose of elections.

This is my greatest fear: A rabble minority employs stealth and guile to thwart the will of the majority. Better to rule in Hell, as Milton says, than serve in a democracy.

Sometimes, when I am awake at night, I think of how our culture pushes the boundaries of taste and decorum further into the wilderness, and wonder about the tipping point beyond which there is no return, like those who cross an abyss and sink forever into tyranny, the point where “the falcon can longer hear the falconer.”

When my daughters were growing up, I taught them this: Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. Responsibility earns freedom, not the reverse. I am afraid we are reaching a tipping point where we lose both.

(Cross-posted at
The Swash Zone.)

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